Every once in a while, an arc of television leaves such a searing impression that the marks stay with us in years to come. We want to do anything to experience the story again, but all we can do is wait for our memories to fade and to one day relive it. As the first half of Attack on Titan: The Final Season Part 3 premieres, I’m reminded of how Return to Shiganshina — Episodes 11 to 22 of the anime’s third season — was that arc for me.
To watch Return to Shiganshina is to experience the full spectrum of human emotions. It’s to dare to have dreams and hopes, only to have them entirely crushed — and for this cycle to repeat itself. I can wax poetics about the technical feats that made each frame across these 12 episodes a marvel to look at (for this story, we are referring to the arc as the events from “Bystander” to “The Other Side of the Wall”). But the arc is a standout because every part was designed for maximum emotional impact — and delivers it. As the Scouts take us on their journey to Wall Maria, it’s impossible not to celebrate their victories, however big or small, and to grieve their losses. Return to Shiganshina is not just the best arc in Attack on Titan, but one of the best arcs in anime because of the sweeping feelings it evokes.
A triumphant charge
The best fight scenes in anime — or in any form of entertainment — are never just a duel of brute strength. Yes, intricately choreographed sequences are mesmerizing, but action is only one part of what sets great battles apart from good ones. Equally important is strategy, and the fights in Return to Shiganshina excel in this area.
The Scouts’ defeat of the Beast Titan is the first example. Up until now, Zeke Jaeger’s ape-like form has been an invincible force. Even as he’s executing the Titan’s plan to trap the Scouts inside Shiganshina, the Beast Titan is doing so with nonchalance — he can’t look more bored as he hurls boulders and massacres dozens at once. It’s one of the most horrifying scenes in all of Attack on Titan, as men and women are ripped apart by the flying rocks. The screams of agony and trails of blood only add to the viewer’s despair.
It’s in the midst of this desolation — as the remaining Scouts droop their heads in defeat — that Commander Erwin Smith devises a scheme. Since there’s no way for the Scouts to beat the Beast Titan by strength alone, they have to rely on outthinking him. Erwin’s plot involves Captain Levi Ackerman using a row of titans next to the Beast Titan as anchors for his ODM gear. But its success requires the sacrifice of nearly everyone in the Regiment: In order to distract Zeke from Levi’s approach, the Scouts will launch a cavalry charge. It’s here that the commander delivers one of the show’s most rousing speeches. Erwin is brutally honest as he communicates the plan: they are heading to their deaths. But his speech is far more invigorating than debilitating. “We die trusting the living who follow to find meaning in our lives!” He exclaims. As he inspires the Scouts to muster up whatever bit of courage they have left, Erwin also plants a seed of hope in the audience.
Which brings us to a climactic moment: When Levi successfully sneaks up on the Beast Titan. I can’t recall a more satisfying viewing experience than witnessing Zeke’s defeat at Levi’s hands. First, there’s the Beast Titan’s surprise at Levi’s sudden appearance — a sign that Erwin’s plan of diversion worked. And there’s Levi’s meticulous slashing of the Beast Titan. Everyone, from Zeke to us, was expecting humanity’s strongest soldier to target the titan’s nape. But Levi first sliced his arm before attacking his eyes and ankles. After watching the Beast Titan tepidly wipe out nearly the entirety of the Scout Regiment, it’s gratifying to see him powerless and sprawled across the ground. When a raging Levi cuts Zeke out from the nape, the viewer is invited to rejoice. Even if the celebrations are short-lived thanks to the Cart Titan appearing to save Zeke, the victory is essential in helping viewers envision the possibility of humanity’s triumph.
Armin’s brilliance against
the Colossal Titan
Part of what makes Return to Shiganshina so exhilarating is that Erwin and Levi’s attack against the Beast Titan makes up only a portion of the action. On the other side of Wall Maria is Armin Arlert and Eren Jaeger’s fight against the Colossal Titan — and the contest is another brilliant display of wit. Once again, the circumstances seem absolutely hopeless. Armin is tasked with creating a plan to subdue Bertholdt Hoover, but comes up blank and begins to panic. When he finally discovers the titan’s weaknessa and tells Eren his idea, it’s a moment of great anticipation for the audience.
Watching the plan unfold, I can’t help but feel both awe and dread. Awe at the sight of Armin’s scheme succeeding — Bertholdt is weakened after strenuously emitting steam, and dread at the realization that Armin is about to be burnt to a crisp. It’s thanks to his sacrifice that Eren is able to deal the final blow on the Colossal Titan and capture Bertholdt. These two fights are both thoroughly entertaining because of the clever ways the enemies were brought down. But besides pure entertainment, they inspire feelings of hope and despair in the viewer. They also prompt us to ask: Must every victory come with such loss?
An impossible choice
And nowhere are we faced with impending loss more than in the episode “Midnight Sun.” It’s where the Scouts realize that both Armin and Erwin are fatally wounded — but alive. Levi, who was entrusted with the titan injection, now has the toughest decision in the series so far: To save either Armin or Erwin. That person will turn into a titan, eat Bertholdt, and inherit the powers of the Colossal Titan — while the other dies. There’s a moment in the episode when Jean Kirstein ,Hange Zoë, and Connie Springer arrive on the rooftop. Their responses to the sight before them capture everything we’re feeling.
“You’ve got to be… kidding me,” Jean says barely above a whisper. “No way,” Connie utters in disbelief as Hange gasps in horror. The voice actors deserve all the praise because the characters’ pain is visceral in every line delivered in this scene. As the Scouts argue over which of the two should live because they are more likely to “save humanity,” the audience can’t help but think about how we would approach this moral dilemma — and feel the agony of it all. And it’s clear that the Scouts’ motivations are not entirely philanthropic — Eren and Mikasa are begging for their childhood best friend to be saved, and Levi and Hange yearn to keep devoting themselves to their leader. Either way, the pain would be insurmountable. When Levi announces that he is using the syringe on Erwin, our hearts are also shattered. Eren lets out a harrowing cry as he’s dragged away, and that sound is one that stays ringing in our ears.
In the end, Levi changes his mind and saves Armin instead. His decision illustrates how Attack on Titan remains to be a forward-thinking story. Before Levi injects the serum, he recalls conversations where Erwin and Armin talked about their dreams. Erwin has been hell-bent on discovering the truth behind the world, while Armin longs to explore life outside of the walls. The commander himself has said he does not know what’s next after going to Eren’s basement, but Armin has a bucket list of items beginning with seeing the ocean for the first time. Levi’s choice reveals an intrinsic desire for the Scouts to live with curiosity, but for that curiosity to extend beyond the titans.
By the end of Return to Shiganshina, the Scouts have experienced grief, despair, and hope — and so has the audience. We find some comfort in knowing that the survivors reached the goal of entering Grisha Jaeger’s basement, and finally learned the truth that some have long suspected: Humanity exists outside of the walls. After three seasons of trying to uncover the mystery behind the titans, we receive answers — albeit absolutely heartrending ones — about their origins. Return to Shiganshina brings Attack on Titan to a satisfying conclusion in the most provocative fashion, and convincingly invites viewers to join the next emotional journey.
If you’re looking to dig deeper into Attack on Titan and chat with fellow fans about the series, check out the Attack on Titan Wiki!
Attack on Titan can be seen on Crunchyroll.